Some thoughts and observations on social innovation

In an environment where the public sector, including the NHS, is actively seeking innovation, Mark Brown explores some of the questions that this raises

Social innovation is often seen as an almost alchemical process, where a mixture of factors combined by an arcane process can produce both new ideas and solutions to social challenges.  While this vision of social innovation is attractive, especially to governments wishing to solve intractable social challenges at a time of restricting austerity, we do not think that this view either captures the reality of social innovation or the multiple practical factors that define its success or failure.

 While social innovation and social entrepreneurship are closely linked they should not be considered synonymous.  While the entrepreneurial process my be an efficient means of discovering areas where innovation may be possible, not all social innovations are entrepreneurial in the sense of generating opportunity either for investment or for profit.  This is especially true of social innovation, which has generally operated in spaces where market failure is apparent or where markets are constrained by the state being the main operator.

While a definition of social innovation may be contentious, what we would recognise as social innovation works mainly in three ways:

  • people generating new solutions to existing challenges
  • people rearranging, repurposing, taking over and otherwise hacking existing structures to repurpose them or modify them
  • people applying existing new ideas in new contexts

If social innovation is both to be a means of solving social challenges and to be a force for a different settlement between people and the services, technologies or institutions they use to meet ‘social’ needs then it is necessary to examine how social innovation happens, where it succeeds and also where it fails.

Social innovation does not exist in a vacuum.  It is rooted in material relations and in economic and social realities.

While there is a small but growing industry promoting social innovation in the UK this is to an extent disconnected from the social innovators who are in the process of putting social innovations into action.

Social innovation is a ‘messy’ process which is in many ways antithetical to 20th Century state or large scale NGO-based approaches to solving social challenges and generating social good.

The factors involved in social innovation are at present under-examined, or if they have been explored this exploration has been overly predicated on particular models of innovation.

Social innovation is both a process and an end product.  While the process of social innovation has been examined to an extent, we content that the social innovation is also the product of that process.

In the context of discussion around ways in which innovative solutions are needed for the growing challenges that people and communities face, it’s seems to us that it’s vital that the we begin to examine what we mean by innovation at a nuts-and-bolts- level.

Things that we feel are under-examined include:

  • why people choose to innovate
  • what their experiences of innovation are
  • where they see social innovation in relation to existing mechanisms to solve social problems

and, ultimately,

  • what is a successful social innovation? How do we know? What promotes the success of an innovation and what hampers it?

What particularly interests us is the question of who is involved in innovation, what stake they have in that process and the interaction between actors in innovation of different status.  Questions we think are important to ask of any drive for innovation are:

  • what are the ways in which individuals and organisations go about the process of social innovation? Who is involved? How is the activity conceptualised?
  • What factors constrain actors in social innovation?
  • What factors do successful social innovations share in common?
  • To what extent can social innovation empower people?
  • Can existing state players promote innovation? Should they?
  • What are the power relationships involved in social innovation? Does social innovation empower?
  • What is it like to be on the receiving end of a ‘social innovation’. How do people interact with the products of social innovation, or with the process?

We made a small start looking at some of these questions in the context of mental health.  Social Spider published ‘Better Mental Health in a Bigger Society?’ in December 2011 looking at the ways in which members of the public with mental health difficulties might develop ways put into action innovations based on the own experiences of mental health difficulties.  ‘Better Mental Health in a Bigger Society?’ also analysed ways in which innovation was difficult to carry out in a fixed landscape of service provision and included case studies of organisations and groups that were in some way generating socially innovative solutions to the challenges people with mental health difficulties face.

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC and editor of One in Four magazine.  He is @markoneinfour on twitter


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